A children's book for grown-ups by Jon Evans

October 14, 2007

85. A Desperate Night

Patch shivered to hear the cawing of thousands of crows in the night. Crows, like squirrels, were normally active by day and roosted in trees by night. He hoped the owls were feasting on the black birds. He stiffened as the caws grew louder, and he heard sudden flapping sounds followed by silence, very near. Crows had landed on his tree.

He breathed as silently as he could. He could easily defend himself in this drey, no more than one crow at a time could squeeze through its narrow entry, but if they learned of his presence they might wait to ambush him in the morning -

Suddenly all the crows on his tree took off, cawing as if to summon the end of the world. There were so many that the oak tree actually shuddered as if with a great wind. Patch heard pawsteps of something - somethings - racing across the ground. He hoped it wasn't squirrels; but it sounded like it was, yes, he heard squirrels crying with rage and pain, barely audible over a cacophony of harsh caws. There was a battle going on outside, and the squirrels were losing. Worse: from their gurgling screams it sounded like they were dying.

Patch wanted to go and help, but he knew that if he emerged from his drey all he would do was die with the others. He heard the sounds of claws on bark, almost drowned out by cawing sounds, and as both grew louder his mind drew a picture of a squirrel climbing the oak tree, covered by a murderous knot of pecking crows -

Something forced itself into the entry of Patch's drey. Patch leaped to his feet, ready to defend himself; but it was a squirrel, a huge squirrel covered with wounds. In the moonlight Patch saw that one of its eyes had been pierced by a beak and was now only a half-empty sac dripping pale fluid onto the squirrel's cheek. Patch could hardly smell the other squirrel under the stench of fresh blood. But this squirrel he would have known anywhere.

"Twitch!" Patch gasped, horror in his voice.

"Patch?" Twitch asked with dull amazement as he shoved himself all the way into the drey. It was barely big enough for both of them and their bodies were pressed together. Twitch's flank was wet with his blood, and his breath was ragged. He was facing away from the entrance, and there was no room to turn around. A crow tried to follow him in, pecked at Twitch's tail. Patch lunged forward, enraged, and tore a tuft of feathers from the crow's neck before it pulled itself free and fluttered unevenly into the night. Other crows settled watchfully around the drey's entrance.

"Is that really you, Patch?" Twitch asked. His voice was rasping and thick with pain. "Am I dreaming? Is this the afterlife? It hurts so much. I thought it wouldn't hurt any more in the afterlife. Is it always like this? Does it get better?"

"This isn't the afterlife, Twitch," Patch said grimly, watching the entrance. "This is really me. You're not dead. You're not going to die."

"I killed a lot of them, Patch. A whole lot."

"I bet you did."

"I'm hungry."

Patch winced. There was no food in his drey.

"What happened?" he asked.

"We were going south. The south was safer, it has to be, the King Beneath is in the Northern Sea. We heard the humans were spraying trees with something to keep the crows away. I guess we didn't get far enough. I think they killed Stardancer. It was hard to see, there's not much moon, but I saw him for a moment, it looked like he stopped fighting and they were eating him. I don't know who's King now. The King Beneath took Sharpclaw. I saw him. Isn't that strange? I actually saw the King Beneath. I'm hungry. The crows almost killed me too. If I hadn't remembered your drey was here. I never thought you'd be in it. My right eye, I can't see out of it at all. Maybe, maybe it will get better. I'll get better, Patch. I always get better."

By the time Twitch finished his voice was so weak he was almost whispering. Patch said nothing.

"You were looking for Silver," Twitch said, barely audible. "Did you find her?"

"Yes," Patch said, glad to have some good news for his friend. "Yes, she's fine, she's far away, she's safe."

"Oh, good. Maybe she's the new King. I'm tired, Patch. I'll see you in the morning."

Twitch shuddered twice and then lay silent. For a moment Patch feared the worst - but he could feel his friend's strong heart still beating within his torn body, faint and fast, but regularly; could feel his battered body swell with ragged breaths.

Patch hardly slept that night. It seemed that every time his eyes closed, another crow tried to enter his drey, and he had to fight it off. He suffered a half-dozen pecks to the snout that night. Eventually, exasperated, he shouted at one attacking crow, "Why are you doing this?"

The crow leaped back to the threshold of the drey, surprised that Patch spoke Bird. It was so dark that motionless it looked less like a thing and more like an absence in the night.

Eventually it said, gruffly, "I don't know, groundling. I'm just a crow. It's what the flock-lord commands. I don't even know why we came here in the first place, much less why now we have to kill you ourselves. All I know is the King of Crows made some kind of bargain."

"What bargain?"

"I'm just a crow," the bird repeated. "I don't like it either. I don't like the night, we can hardly see. Hundreds of us have died. The owls are terrible. But we can't go home until you're dead. I'm sorry."

Then the crow retreated, disappearing into darkness. It did not return; and for the rest of the night no more crows tried to force their way into Patch's drey.

Patch must have eventually fallen asleep; he was woken by the dawn. Twitch lay beside him, unconscious. Patch wormed his way forward and poked his head gingerly outside the entrance of his drey. There were crows still outside, roosting on the branches of his oak tree, covering them like leaves: dozens of them, hundreds. Patch hesitated, not sure what to do.

Then a mighty avian cry came from above, as if the sky itself was screaming, and the crows on his tree all came to life at once and fled panicked into the western sky, as Karmerruk came soaring down. One crow was too slow; Karmerruk caught it, tore it in two, landed on the branch that included Patch's drey, and began to feast.

"Ready, squirrel?" he asked between bites, as Toro and Daffa fluttered to landings on branches a safe and respectful distance away from the hawk.

"Just a moment," Patch said.

He dashed to the ground and filled his mouth with tulip bulbs from across the nearest concrete path. He returned to his drey, opened his mouth, and left the bulbs there for Twitch. Then he took the glass ball back into his paws.

"I have to go, Twitch," he said to his friend's unconscious form. "I'm sorry. I'll be back as soon as I can."

Patch emerged from the drey to the branch. He groaned with pain as once again Karmerruk's talons dug into his back, and the hawk beat his enormous wings, and once again they rose into the sky. They followed Daffa and Toro eastwards.

As they passed out of the Center Kingdom, into the eastern mountains, Patch craned his neck to look behind him, at his home. To his alarm he saw a black cloud of crows rising into the sky and soaring after them.

"Behind us!" he cried out. "Crows! They're chasing us!"

Daffa and Toro accelerated forward and away from the pursuing mob. Karmerruk strained to do the same; but he was so slowed by Patch's weight that he could not match their pace. The hundred black birds in howling pursuit were bound to catch them before they reached their destination.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Iva said...

I commented in the beginning, and I have been reading this at a lackadaisical pace since then. I just thought I will skip ahead to say that the war chapter was absolutely terrific- I doubt you will read a comment on a chapter posted a week or so ago.

October 14, 2007 at 10:23 PM  
Blogger perlhaqr said...

Too bad Karmerruk isn't a Hayabusa. I bet the crows couldn't catch him doing a stoop at 200 miles an hour. Of course, Patch would probably be windblown right out of his claws at that point.

-Ogre

October 15, 2007 at 7:51 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

Iva: thanks very much! (And in fact I read all comments, 'cause they get emailed to me.)

October 15, 2007 at 11:27 AM  
Anonymous Rakie said...

*lip trembles* ohhh, poor twitch! now, i'm fairly sure that he didn't deserve that, the poor tubby squirrel. These chapters with the crows are freakin terrifying, eeek and the thing about the King Beneath coming up and eating someone... that's going to get noticed, even in New York. Such awesomely cool chapters. I really REALLY hope you're somehow going to be able to pull a happy ending out of this, otherwise there shall be shoes like never before. :D

October 15, 2007 at 12:59 PM  

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Jon Evans is the award-winning author of the thrillers Invisible Armies, Dark Places (aka Trail of the Dead), and The Blood Price. See his web site rezendi.com.

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